Gerson Irish Reading: Colum McCann, the voice behind great novels

Tuesday night marked the 20th annual Gerson Irish Reading, and to celebrate they brought in their third and now 20th reader Colum McCann. McCann has written a number of books over the years including “TransAtlantic,” “Let the Great World Spin,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” “Dancer” and many more. (Patrycja Jerzak/The Daily Campus)

Tuesday night marked the 20th annual Gerson Irish Reading, and to celebrate they brought in their third and now 20th reader Colum McCann. McCann has written a number of books over the years including “TransAtlantic,” “Let the Great World Spin,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” “Dancer” and many more. Of these books, he has won several prestigious prizes such as the Pushcart Prize, the Rooney Prize and the Irish Novel of the Year.

McCann read in a steady, clear voice, with slightly altered tones when he read dialogue, description and thoughts. Several members of the audience had read “TransAtlantic” previously and took note of the difference between reading it themselves and hearing the author read it out aloud.

“(McCann’s reading was) definitely more emotional, you can get a sense of how he wanted it to be read based on how he read it himself,” sixth-semester communication major Colleen Daly said.

“Well I think with any published piece that you read you are calling into question the diction and the cadance that the publisher wanted versus what the author was saying,” eighth-semester English major Jake Santo said.

McCann’s main focus during this reading was on his book “TransAtlantic.” He spent a large amount of his time on the section he wrote from the perspective of former senator George Mitchell. Mitchell had been one of the leaders in the creation of the Good Friday Agreement that brokered peace in Northern Ireland. McCann said he considered the story of this peace process to be the greatest story of the 20th and 21st Century.

McCann talked about how difficult it was to write a piece of fiction about a person who was still alive. He said that when he approached Mitchell and his wife Heather MacLachlan, MacLachlan had been eager to help McCann write the book, since she had read one of his books in the past. Rather than immediately jump into interviewing the senator, McCann spent four months writing his own version of him, using a combination of intuition and facts he had gathered about Mitchell’s life. When he had MacLachlan read what he had written so far, she was astounded by how much he had gotten right. According to McCann, he had guessed the location where Mitchell would prefer to be buried perfectly. Mitchell himself looked over McCann’s writing and corrected little errors, like his favorite baseball team and the two became friends.

McCann also talked about his section from the perspective of Frederick Douglass. He was incredibly interested in the contradiction Douglass had felt between promoting the abolition movement and ignoring the starving Irish that were surrounding him because of the Irish famine. McCann said he had tried to inhabit this contradiction and get into the head of Douglass and how he had probably felt about the starving all around him.

One student asked McCann about his writing process and McCann said that he always felt that his first draft never matched his vision for the story.

“It’s in my head, it’s in my heart, why isn’t it going through my fingers?” McCann said.

Despite this, McCann still pursued incredibly difficult and complex topics, such the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

“I do think that the inexecutable is the thing I’m most interested in,” McCann said.

Many students in the audience were interested in creative writing and took a lot out of McCann’s experience as a novelist.

“I write a lot in my own free time so hearing any sort of similar emotional pathways or trains of thought that help the process of writing keep going (really helps),” Santo said.

McCann’s reading was incredibly insightful into his thought process behind “TransAtlantic,” as well as how he managed to write about such historical men, dead and alive.

“Putting a face to the writing,” Daly said. “It’s always nice to get a sense of who you’re reading and also why they wrote it.”

McCann’s books are incredibly well-written and intricate reads, and would suit the top of anyone’s summer reading list very nicely.